Richard Misrach’s Haunting Elegy for the Victims of Hurricane Katrina
“The sadness will last forever.”
The last words of Vincent Van Gogh float through my mind as I crack the spine of Destroy This Memory (Aperture). It’s entirely too much, and yet, not nearly enough, but if photographs may be an elegy, Richard Misrach has produced one of the most haunting poems for the dead and gone, the victims of Hurricane Katrina.
Eleven years ago today, Katrina began as an interaction between a tropical wave and a tropical cyclone in the Bahamas. It quickly intensified into a Tropical Storm and made its way westward, gaining strength over the Gulf of Mexico. On August 29, it touched down in southeast Louisiana, becoming the most destructive natural disaster in United States history. Ranked one of the five most deadly hurricanes in the nation, with more than 1,800 dead, Katrina decimated the city of New Orleans.
The images of a city underwater and a people abandoned immediately spring to mind, of a government completely unprepared and woefully incapable of meeting the needs of its people in their time of greatest need. More than 800,000 citizens were displaced, and the government’s response was bleak. The scale of the disaster was, in many ways, too profound to comprehend. The scope of the trauma is so vast that it becomes impossible to look. And yet we must, for Louisiana has flooded once again, though the media pays it hardly any mind.
Richard Misrach, who has been photographing the region since the 1970s, traveled to the area in the months following Katrina. It is impossible what it must have looked like, taken as a whole: building after building, block after block, entire neighborhoods vanquished by the flood. Not just buildings, not just homes, but entirely lives and families, erased as though they never were.
But before the moment of disappearance, before all is lost, a final act of defiance from people who have since become anonymous: a handwritten message on the wall. The outside of buildings covered with final thoughts, boarded up auto parts store advising, “SEEK GOD.” Another warns in tall red letters. “I AM HERE. I HAVE A GUN.” An abandoned Chevrolet Blazer with no tires and a trophy sitting on its hood, professing, “KATRINA U BITCH,” while a big unsmiley face looks out from the back window.
The scrawl is endless and it is everywhere. To call it graffiti would be to simplistic. It’s not an act of vandalism; it’s much too late to be concerned with misdemeanor crimes. These are the words from an apocalypse that was then and is now. These words are scrawled on buildings but they could be etched in tombstones. They are epitaphs and warnings; they are notes to recovery groups, advising of dead bodies, human and otherwise. These are the only words in the entire book, because they speak for themselves.
Napoleon Bonaparte famously said, “A picture is worth a thousand words,” reminding us of the freedom of non-verbal expression. Your thousand words and my thousand words might overlaps but they’re unlikely to match. Pictures liberate us from the tyranny of the verbal mind with its insistence we translate thoughts into words.
So what happens when words become the subject of the picture, but the writer is unknown? We’re left to confront the unknowable through the most basic of human drives: the need to use words to bare witness, to connect, to communicate. But what of the message: “St. Bernard Killed Carole. Can We Rebuild That.”
Destroy This Memory—but you know that’s impossible.
All photos: © Richard Misrach, courtesy of Aperture.
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.